Review by stealthgiga

"Well Crafted"

Tenchu series has been known for its stealth gameplay - whereby staying out of enemies' sights and disposing them with one-hit kills when they are unaware gives you a better rate of survival than facing them Devil May Cry-style.

While controversially reinventing the series, Tenchu 4 is still religiously true to its root - which is to create a realistic ninja simulation - and in my opinion, it succeeds even more than the past installments.

Gone are the new movement controls from Tenchu 3, which are akin to action games. The developers have brought back the tank-like controls from the first games and used over-the-shoulder perspective similar to Resident Evil 4.

I think the tank-like controls are better suited for this game and necessary in order not to make the game too easy. A positive side-effect is that you are less likely to fall to death by accident.

In my observation, the gameplay focus has evolved from simply staying out of enemy's range of vision with the use of terrains - onto making use of shadows (and other environments) to provide better concealment.

Tenchu 4 introduces shadow areas, whereby when you enter, make your character practically invisible. The use of shadow areas is often necessary for success and in many cases you have to create them yourselves - by putting off fires and candles - giving a tactical element to the game.

In fact, Tenchu 4 feels less as an action game and more like a puzzle game, where you have to find a solution to proceed successfully undetected - through information-gathering and using resources at hand, exactly what a sneaking simulation should be.

This unusual 'action puzzle game feel' is accentuated by the highly context-sensitive and process-based nature of actions in the game, which in turn makes the game feel more solid.

Introducing Ninja Eye view, which is a look-around mode that allows you to scan the character's surroundings and highlight important elements such as shadow areas, enemies, interactive objects and even hint footsteps - footsteps that show you which way to proceed in case you are lost. This Ninja Eye often produces breathtaking views.

The number of ninja items has been cut down, but this is a good thing for in the past installments, many of them are useless. In Tenchu 4 most of them have specific uses, although some are more useful than the others - inevitable by nature. The items in Tenchu 4 could even actually be less - if not for the variations of shurikens.

Grappling hook, a staple item in the series to reach high places, has been removed. I think this is a good move as in the past, the applications are limited - they just boil down to reach places that you can't reach by jumping.

In replacing grappling hook for that little navigation gameplay, which is to reach places that can't be reached by jumping, the designers introduce small boxes that you can position and step on them in order to gain more height - an element I noticed is derived from their other ninja series: Shinobido.

Gone also is the ki-meter, numerical values ranging up to 100 that help indicate enemies' positions. I always want them removed or at least have an option to turn it off and I'm glad they're gone now. To begin with, the first ever Japanese Tenchu game doesn't have these numbers.

This element has been abused by in turn making enemies to be easy indicators to progress through the level. The formula is that if I lost my way in a level, I will just go search for enemies because where there are enemies is where I haven't been to before - because I slaughtered everyone on my way. So far it makes sense, nothing wrong with that, but instead of true observation and exploration, the system encourages us to look at numbers.

And because we want these numbers to be accurate as possible, we tend to slaughter everyone on the way as I mentioned, instead of killing only those that really obstruct our paths - a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship that, you know, projects us to a certain behavior even if we prefer to do otherwise because that way is more advantageous. Such issues are more pronounced in competitive games as the effects are exponential - they could break the games.

What remains is a graphical icon that tells your state - whether you are safe or the guards are suspicious of you, plus how hidden are you. Simple and sufficient.

The battle system is simplistic: it's a first-person view and player takes turns with enemies in attacking and defending positions. Defending is about following command prompts correctly, building up Tenchu gauge in the process. When the gauge is full, it's time to start attacking. If you fail to defend, you could die or damage your sword (there is a gauge for this). When the sword breaks, it's also a game over.

Although the battle system could be considered the low-point of the game, it still follows that Tenchu is more about stealth and not battles. I remember back then some people defending Tenchu 3, "if you want awesome battle system and kick asses, go play Ninja Gaiden." The same still holds true. Tenchu 4 is true to its root, after all.

Tenchu 4 is technically a short game that feels quite long because of the nature of the game. At least for me in the beginning, I tend to get spotted and have to repeat things over and over. When playing from start to end, the whole experience feels like a movie.

And speaking of movie-like experience, there is no more narration to explain the story; all is done in cutscenes. The story is whole and there are no parallels, just like the way they treated Tenchu 2 and Tenchu: Kurenai. Personally I prefer these over the parallel ones.

There are only 10 story missions, 6 for Rikimaru and 4 for the female ninja Ayame. It's short, but quality over quantity. There are also 50 side-missions, which act like a challenge mode.

The replay value for the game mainly comes from trying to S-rank every missions, which are not easy - as the scoring system measures time taken to complete the mission, the number of times you are spotted and the number of enemies you killed. The other is to unlock all the secrets

To get S-rank you have to be very familiar with the mission, you have to have found solutions on how to get things done more quickly and also carried the right items - themselves required unlocking and stocking up to do.

It's the constant learning of how to do things better and better what makes the game fun and well crafted.

I wish the developers could have included a mission builder in this game. I understand it could be difficult because of the inclusion of shadow areas. But because of the puzzle elements, custom missions with good puzzles would be more meaningful.

No doubt some Tenchu fans are not going to be happy with this game, just as some RE fans were upset with Resident Evil 4 when it released. But I think it is a good move (notice I said that a lot) for the series and I'm glad the developers made Tenchu 4 what it is. I'm sure sooner or later many people would appreciate for what it adds to the series.

With solid foundation yet certain areas seemingly in still need of improvements and the plot that has taken a controversial twist, I'm more eager than ever for Tenchu 5.

To Acquire, From Software and Tenchu Checkpoint for bringing this game: Well done!

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/13/09

Game Release: Tenchu 4 (JP, 02/12/09)

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